You heard that right: all two female characters (with more than a few lines) in the 2017 live recording of Disney’s NEWSIES aren’t allowed to have interests or personality traits unless those aspects benefit the male protagonist.
By Nicole Anderson
The two characters I’ll be examining will be Katherine (Plummer) Pulitzer and Medda Larkin. While they both seem to be written as strong and independent women, you don’t have to look too hard to see the dependence the male characters’ storylines have to the traits they’ve been assigned.
First, Katherine. She is the first female character seen on stage in this musical and by far the most relevant throughout the story. You would think that would be a good thing, as there is more content to work with and more opportunities to develop as a character, but as it turns out, everything about her serves a purpose for the protagonist, Jack Kelly. With the help of the playwright Harvey Fierstein and lyricist Jack Feldmen, the plot and musical numbers pair together to perpetuate the notion that Katherines entire existence was created to advance Jack’s plot.
I’ll set the scene: a beautiful unnamed female enters stage right and walks past our handsome hero. He hits on her to no avail, and that’s the end of it, right? Unfortunately, no. It’s a broadway show! There’s gotta be a half baked romantic plot line for the cocky main character!
This takes place in the form of Katherine, an aspiring reporter. Right off the bat as he attempts to advance on her, she claims to not be in the habit of talking to strangers. His retort? “Well then you’re gonna make a lousy reporter.” Sadly, he’s got a point. Her being a reporter effectively opens the door for continued interaction between the two of them. This relationship will go on to fuel several actions for him later on.
“I’m a blowhard. Davey is the brains.”-Jack Kelly
This quote is spoken from Jack to Katherine after the initial interview she does with the newsboys in regards to the strike. A recurring theme of the female characters is that they are everything that Jack is not. Jack is not the brains behind the strike, Davey handles that, so plot-wise he needs someone to be the brains behind the media and raising awareness.
Being female is also essential to her character because a male reporter at the time would never have to dig this hard to be able to report on “real news.” Her solo song, “Watch What Happens,” is prefaced with Jack saying, “Write it good. We both got a lot riding on this.” Jacks quote perfectly captures her necessity to him: without her being who she is, this strike potentially falls through.
It wasn’t good enough for her to just be a reporter, so they wrote her character in a way that gives her no choice but to write about their situation. Here’s a short list of reasons she has no choice but to write about the strike:
- She is trying to depart from the social pages, a subject area she’s been stuck in for awhile.
- She is desperate for a big scoop.
- She has moral obligations to the newsboys and other kids working jobs around NYC.
- She sees potential for a raise and a promotion if she takes this story.
“But all I know is nothing happens if you just give in. It can’t be any worse than how it’s been, and it just so happens that we just might win. So, whatever happens, let’s begin.”-Katherine (Plummer) Pulitzer, “Watch What Happens”
Not only is she talking about the situation that the newsboys are in, whether it was meant to be interpreted this way or not, she is also describing her career. She has literally nothing to lose; nowhere to go but up. Everything about her ensures that this will get written about with no questions asked.
In terms of the plot, she’s after this big scoop, but only because it helps the male characters cause. It isn’t her own independent dream. The NEWSIES success is reliant on her.
Don’t believe me? Have a listen to the song “King of New York”.
When you do, take special notice to how Katherine does not sing the line, “I was a star for one whole minute” and how the newsies sing about how much she helped them. This further emphasizes how it moves the male characters plots along but not necessarily her own.
Additionally, she is Pulitzer’s daughter. There is, of course, the obvious pull to write this in: it’s more dramatic for Jack’s character when he realizes his enemy is his quasi-girlfriend’s daughter and will advance his story-lines. But, also answers the question brought up about her in regards to why she hangs around The World so much when she works for The Sun (aka how she was able to interview the newsies in the first place).
It gets worse.
As Pulitzer does his classic evil guy monologue explaining how he’s ten steps ahead of Jack and gives a little more insight to Katherine’s background, he reveals why she doesn’t work for him. He says it’s because she wanted to earn what she was given, but again, from the plot’s perspective it’s really so that her character has the liberty to write about the strike; a liberty she wouldn’t have if she worked for her father. So while on the surface it looks like she is taking initiative in her life, that decision more serves the purpose of being able to get the strike more media attention.
With such large numbers of supporters, supplied by the news, the strike becomes too big to ignore. It is no surprise when the newsboys reel in victory.
ENTER MEDDA LARKIN
Her first introduction is her allowing Jack and the boys to stay in her theater, sheltering them from the cops. From the get-go, her only purpose has been to help the men of the story. One could say that she is a business owner and a strong female character, but the sad truth is that just like Katherine, the only aspects of her character that we are told about directly benefit Jack.
Her theater is used for three things only:
- Sheltering Jack from the cops.
- Her show (which really only happens so Jack has more opportunities to talk to Katherine).
- Housing the massive rally at the end of the musical (which ultimately ends with them winning the strike) .
Notice how all its’ uses help Jack?
“There’s one thing you’re not, that I’ll always be and baby that’s rich.”Medda Larkin, “That’s Rich”
Again, we run into the realization that just like Katherine, Medda is something Jack is not: rich. She has money.
She’s exactly what Jack needs in order to succeed.
If it wasn’t enough for her to own a theater and shelter him from the cops, she also pays him for his art, and in her own words gives him, “a little something extra, just account’a I’m gonna miss you so”. Being rich is the opposite of what Jack is, making it necessary to his success for her to be just that that. Also, I’d like to mention that if it were stated that she had major investments or was trying to buy something expensive, I wouldn’t even mind that much that she’s only shown using her wealth to help the boys. However, the only thing she even mentions using her money for is to pay off the theater (helpful for Jack) and paying Jack for his art (obviously very helpful for Jack).
The first time we meet Medda she also mentions that she knows the governor. That’s cool! That definitely was not only written so that the newsboys can exploit Medda’s relationship with him to finally win the strike in the end!
Of course it was. Is Jack socially powerful? Yeah, maybe for the boys his age that sell papes, but overall in their society? No. Is Medda? Yes. In classic fashion, Medda has pull with high society because Jack doesn’t. The female character, again, has the opposite of the traits that he exhibits because they need to be for him to succeed. So she does what any good supporting character should do, and serves her purpose: she brings in good ole’ Teddy Roosevelt to set all this strike nonsense straight and win the newsboys their rights.
In summary, the issue is not that they aren’t given any hopes, dreams, aspirations, or duties that they want to accomplish, but that they aren’t given any that are solely for their own benefit. Consistently they are assigned traits that match what Jack needs and nothing else. Whether it was a random line about why Katherine hangs around The World so often, or a fun fact that Medda knows the governor, every aspect of the female characters in NEWSIES serves a purpose for Jack Kelly’s story.